Topsoil turvy 

Giles Thelen and Greg Guscio are saving patches of native prairie from soon-to-be-developed hillsides around Missoula, four square feet at a time.

“We just want to preserve our native plant communities and save them from invasives,” says Thelen, a native plant research specialist at the University of Montana.

What started as small rescue missions focused on removing specific plants has turned into Native Yards, a partnership Thelen and Guscio hope will save some patches of native old-growth prairie from development and invasive species, and possibly turn into a sustainable business venture.

“We used go on these rescues and take out 80-year-old bunch grass but leave wondering about the plants we didn’t dig up. They were left to rot. That was the genesis of our project,” Thelen says.

Thelen and Guscio, who’s a graduate student in wildlife biology at UM, negotiate with local developers to access plots of land before the land movers or cats are called in. They select patches of ground with less than 5 percent invasive species and extract the top layer of earth, using a Bobcat skid steer to scoop the turf onto pallets. So far, Native Yards has rescued sod from sites in Grant Creek, Frenchtown and the South Hills.

But they are careful to explain that what they take is more than just dirt.

“We target the first six to eight inches of topsoil because that’s where you find the seed bank, native biota, bacteria, fungi and nematodes that have been working together for thousands of years to create a community,” Thelen says.

Native Yards is beginning to find a market for rescued prairie. Caras Nursery and Landscape has agreed to purchase some of the grassland, and nursery owner Bill Caras says he’s interested in the concept. “It’s fresh and exciting,” he says. Although the nursery has yet to put a price tag on native prairie, Caras will offer the native sod as part of its retail market and landscaping installation services.

Thelen and Guscio say that while they will profit from some of the prairie they remove, they will use other pieces in research to combat invasive species.

“The main reason we are doing this is to save these plants,” Thelen says.

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